Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
Posted March 29, 2022 at 8:44 pm by San Juan Update
Freezer Burned is an ongoing series for the San Juan Update, written by Steve Ulvi. Read the previous story in this series.
Déjà vu All Over Again
My old friend, Archie Ferguson, last sojourned from his Yukon River village a few years back to attend a Sasquatch Discovery Camp near Darrington, WA. You might remember that his main reason for leaving his village‑a tiny outpost of peoplehood in a vast wild landscape-to endure the hassles of negotiating a herd-like society, was not Sasquatch sleuthing but a quest as old as the Anthropocene itself; meeting up with an eligible gal. Dreams of pitching woo. It didn’t go well.
With COVID finally relenting for a spell and a growing sense of a good lifetime diminishing (pithily describing his future as “like looking through the wrong end of my binoculars”), Archie called to announce a nostalgic road trip down the Al-Can Highway and beyond. I knew he was mentally already on his way after a tough winter (but the gravel highway to the village wouldn’t be plowed open for weeks yet) by the exuberant tone of his voice when he left the message.
He was emphatic fifteen years ago that I would sorely regret leaving the “Great Land” for this banana belt island on the watery edge of Pugetopolis. “A place wholeheartedly groveling to tourism after a concerted regional free-for-all that has all but destroyed a big chunk of Pacific Salmon World. Striving to become a place of abundant grey hair, pearl Escalades, ostentatious wealth and a widespread belief that stunted red fox, eruptive European hares and herds of sick blacktail deer are somehow natural.”
Archie considers industrial tourism to be about as healthy as a confirmed case of flesh-eating bacteria. My wife does not pick up the phone when she hears his distinctive jive leaving a message. Her back is up about our grandkids recently learning of the “besotted, ferret-down-trousers contest between Archie and Grandpa” on a brass-cold winter night so long ago. She frowns saying that “it makes you look damned stupid and was unnecessary cruelty for Archie’s ferrets.”
After my long-suffering wife and I mulled over the many facets of an Archie visit, including not being here when he arrived, we began laughing at ourselves for our fortress-island-pandemic-hunker-down state of mind. Afterall, Archie despite his lack of basic hygiene and Bad Santa schtick, is really as lovable and faithful a friend as any old smelly Golden retriever. Some mind-melding and reminiscing about youthful adventures just might help me cope with some of my growing angst about living in an exurban bubble oozing with self-congratulation reminiscent of the smiling folks who ascended the steep ramps to board the Titanic.
When he picked up after a dozen rings at his musty slough cabin yesterday, I was instantly reminded of the dramatic effect of latitude at the passing of Spring Equinox. After the usual niceties, while I gazed out at our lush green landscape, budding plants, temps in the 40’s and ravens cavorting in the breeze he slurped tea and accordingly warmed up to sharing his plans.
“Champ, I bet you could use a reality check. I know that I am way overdue! I have a Nostalgic Western America Vision Quest in mind. I have been digging out the old Ford and starting to make it and the leaky camper road-worthy. Gonna use my covid stimulus check I saved up. Lots of March sun but still 25 below in the mornings so turning wrenches and cleaning out squirrel nests in the seat foam is not much fun.”
As always, we began to wind each other up and riff on shared memories, like pals do, of earthy stories of regular folks living life along the banks of The River in the Great Northland.
Thinking of the cold I mentioned the cold snap “when Dickie Mott burned up his rig trying to thaw the engine with a small fire in a hubcap underneath? Then he decided that it needed help with a few squirts of gas! The volunteer fire department guys gleefully sprayed enough water to encase the blackened hulk in ice. It stood as a translucent sculpture to his ineptitude (and empty fire extinguishers) for months.“
Archie chimed in. “That Power Wagon is still sitting overgrown in the willows ya know Champ, even though Dickie is long gone. His oldest son, Buckshot, continued the family tradition in providing village entertainment. You were upriver, but I bet you remember his adolescent, genetically hardwired tendency to push the edge of the blockhead envelope. On a candy bar dare, with the mercury at minus 44F he repeatedly spit on one hand and then gripped that smooth steel flagpole at the Post Office for the twenty seconds agreed upon. Painfully stuck (probably made worse by his hairy palms) he frantically unzipped one-handed to aim a warm yellow spray as quickly as he could. His friends nearly choked with laughter, while Sharlene, the churchy post mistress stared in disbelief.”
Sniggering in my mustache I offered another. “Archie, I forgot about that, but do recall that years later Dickie and his free-range offspring built their first fishwheel, a small one using logs for a raft and just above the village boat landing. One day Buckshot was checking on it after the river came way up. While he stood smoking a butt a big tree spun down the bank and lodged under the raft immediately straining the shore rope until it parted with a whip-like crack! Wild-eyed, not knowing what to do he started hollering and leaped on the raft.”
“Oh, hell yes! Champ, that sounds like when Dirty Frank tied off that huge tourist raft to that school bus bumper at the lower landing by the Eagle Bluff.” More post-graduate lessons in the relentless power of flowing water.
“Yep, so Buckshot, apoplectic as he picked up speed, spinning slowly outside the edge of the boat landing eddy, quickly tied a large loop in the retrieved rope and managed to lasso Sarge Black’s big Mercury outboard hanging on the stern of his old wooden riverboat tied at the shoreline. Needless to say, there were a couple of weak links (other than Buckshot’s common sense) in the impromptu experiment involving the physics of mass and momentum. In seconds, at the moment of peaking tension, the poly rope tightened to a high C note. While the raft was swung in just enough to be captured by the back eddy, the roped outboard tore out the transom and the whole rig went to the bottom.”
Archie was now rollicking in the hilarity of the tribulations of others. “Then to add insult to injury Buckshot waded to shore with another rope to tie up the raft, breathing hard after the adrenaline dump. While sucking another smoke, swatting skeets and trying to think, the town drunk rolled up in his rust bucket truck, wrinkled bumpers rattling.”
“Buckshot hatched a plan. He asked ‘Drunken Dixon’ to turn his rig around so he could connect the rope (now anchored at depth by the big outboard) to his ball hitch. They would team up to fix things by pulling the so recently pristine outboard out of the drink. Dixon, badly hungover, but energized by his temporary importance, gave ‘er the snooze with tires spinning and throwing gravel. The Merc emerged like a beast from the murk, bucking and bouncing across rocks and plowing a furrow well up the sandy ramp, trailing shards of black metal and plastic.”
“Ya Archie, later I talked with ol’ Charlie Gunderson who casually observed the whole thing while hoeing weeds in his garden. He was buck naked as usual and said that it was a case of ‘exquisite comedic coincidence’ that Sarge Black happened to pull in next to Dixon’s rig, ready to take his boat out for a Sunday spin.“
Charlie said that “Sarge was smiling, six pack in hand, as he stepped down out of his newish truck; a result of oil pipeline overtime earned while sleeping for hours in the idling crew bus. He stopped abruptly and stood staring, head cocked to the side, with that confused look of “what the hell is wrong with this picture”? His eyes went to the knots he had tied around a driven stake then followed the painter into the water where his boat should have been. A galvanized fish tub and life jackets with his name on ‘em bobbed there. His heart must have plummeted as it dawned on him that the dirty, busted up Mercury 90 horse bolted to a grey splintered plywood transom at the end of the tow rope was his but he could not imagine what had transpired. Realizing that the n’er-do-wells Buckshot and Dixon, standing smoking sheepishly, were somehow involved, was disheartening in the extreme.”
“Ha. Good damned thing that Sarge was on his meds because he had blood in his eyes as Buckshot launched into the dramatic tale of daring-do and avoiding certain death with quick thinking! Buckshot kept the truck bed between him and Sarge, who was three times his size and hyperventilating the whole time. Dixon popped a beer and stood back. At first, Buckshot offered up the untested fishwheel and a couple of old multi-colored outboards as partial payment. Dickie and Buckshot took nearly a year to repay Sarge the $1,200 in repairs, but they did it. But later as fate would have it, their cobbled together fishwheel caught a few early chum salmon then tore itself apart when the water dropped one night” added Archie.
Well, back to the present. “So why on earth would you leave the steady life in the village for a road trip to an America that is coming apart at the seams, Archie?”
“The sands of time are continuously trickling, Champ. My long dirt nap can’t be too far off. I know you feel that too. I want to sow seeds of hope through story-telling for grounded people who dream of finding the good life in the far North like you and I did in the 1960s and 70s as a dystopian future seems confirmed.”
“Oh man, Archie. I don’t think you really realize just how profoundly the culture wars have permeated the West.”
“My renewal will grow from being in familiar, appealing western landscapes and rural communities that have maintained some dignity during the terrible onslaught of capitalism and population overshoot. Fresh bean coffee should have helped some! I want to unwind America back to simpler times when “micro-aggression” was a spider pouncing on a fly. Taking in places you and I reveled in back in the days of our youthful indiscretions and just living each day.“
“I need a big dose of nostalgia. But also new normal experiences from the absurd to the sublime you might say. For instance, I am digging out my old sandals thinking of warm sandy beaches. I have never had a pedicure, my neglected ‘dogs’ and curled toenails could use some TLC. And remember that wonderful swimming hole we found near Eugene one very hot summer day in about 1971 that was frequented by fun-loving, skinny-dipping coeds? I would like to see if that bit of Eden still exists…”
“Whoa Archie, come up for some air! If you subject some perfectly innocent pedicurist to a one-hour walk-in I want the video rights! Safe to say that gals just trying to make the rent have never seen the Encyclopedia of Bad Feet and Toe Nail Oddities. For good reason! Secondly, that bucolic town swimming hole from back in the day is probably a nasty soup of agricultural waste, tires and shopping carts. Worse yet nudity is no longer practiced anywhere in public by strangers in post-modern America.”
“Alright, Champ I won’t expose all of my ideas to your snark. I’ve read of Dry Falls in that wonderfully named Scablands Region, and want to imagine the numerous cataclysmic Missoula flood events. Maybe camp on the backside of Mt St. Helens and think of ol’ Harry Truman’s last moments there at home on Spirit Lake before becoming stardust himself once more. I’d sure like to see spring wildflowers in endless profusion, coloring valleys and slopes in arid regions where the forces of volcanism and deep time are exposed. Like we did that moonlit night in the Mohave desert so long ago.”
“I am with you, Archie, how ‘bout we take in that country and the roadside monuments near Lolo Pass where the Lewis and Clark Expedition raised the fateful curtain of modernity. And superimposed is the desperate fighting retreat of Chief Joseph and his stalwart Nez Perce tribe desperately seeking peaceful refuge from settlers and their army by heading for Canada some 70 years later. Those events were like bookends of the national exult and shame in Manifest Destiny.”
Now on a roll Archie continued. “On a lighter note, I know that I have told you about some of my adventures after shipping home from Vietnam and trying to cleanse my soul of that experience. Working small rodeos in eastern Oregon as a clown focused my mind with the most exquisite of views of the whole shebang; bone-breaking drama, snot slingin’ bulls and a heavy whiff of testosterone in the dusty air. All for big belt buckles and a few hundred bucks!”
“But I will never forget the weekend at a sweaty shit-kicker bar in Burns, Oregon when a guy arrived with a caged Orangutan offering $100 to anyone who could wrestle with the ape for more than 30 seconds. 20 bucks a try as I remember it. Turns out the attractive gal gussied up and traipsing around egging-on bleary-eyed cowboys was his accomplice. They walked out of there with a lot of money while the first aid station was real busy patching up hatless, dazed cowboys in shredded shirts. Especially one slow learner who tried three times in a display of textbook insanity!”
“Hey Champ, enough of this alright! Daylight is burnin’. More later on. This will be a capstone road trip to remember!”
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